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United Nations Headquarters

The United Nations Headquarters is a distinctive complex in New York City that has served as the headquarters of the United Nations since its completion in 1950. It is located in the Turtle Bay neighborhood, on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, on spacious grounds overlooking the East River. Though it is in New York City, the land occupied by the United Nations Headquarters is considered "international territory", and its borders are First Avenue on the west, East 42nd Street to the south, East 48th Street on the north and the East River to the east. FDR Drive passes underneath the Conference Building of the complex.

The United Nations Headquarters were constructed in New York City in 1949 and 1950 beside the East River, on seventeen acres of land purchased from the foremost New York real estate developer of the time, William Zeckendorf. This purchase was arranged by Nelson Rockefeller, after an initial offer of placing it on the Rockefeller family estate of Kykuit was rejected as being too isolated from Manhattan. The $8.5million purchase was then funded by his father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated it to the City. The lead architect for the building was the real estate firm of Wallace Harrison, the personal architectural adviser for the family.

Planning and construction

Rather than announce a competition for the design of the facilities for the headquarters, the UN decided to commission a collaborative effort among a multinational team of leading architects. American architect Wallace Harrison was named the director of planning, and a board of design consultants was nominated by member governments. The board consisted of N.D. Bassov of the Soviet Union, Gaston Brunfaut (Belgium), Ernest Cormier (Canada), Le Corbusier (France/Switzerland), Liang Ssu-cheng (China), Sven Markelius (Sweden), Oscar Niemeyer (Brazil), Howard Robertson (United Kingdom), G.A. Soilleux (Australia), and Julio Villamajo (Uruguay).

The committee considered 50 different designs before arriving at a decision. The basis for the final design was based on Niemeyer/Le Corbusier's design, known as "Scheme 23/32."

Bound by such constraints as the East River Drive (later the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive) and the East River, it became necessary to build a high-rise office building for the secretariat. The 38-story Secretariat Building was controversial in its time but became a modernist landmark. Its characteristic east-west walls were fully covered with thermopane glass designed to absorb heat from sunlight, except for air intakes on the 6th, 16th, 28th and 38th floors. The north-south walls are covered with Vermont marble.

Per an agreement with the New York City government, the buildings meet some but not all local fire safety and building codes.

The construction of the headquarters was financed by an interest-free loan of $65 million made by the United States government.

The UN's founders believed that decolonization was many decades away; accordingly, they instructed the architects of the new UN buildings in New York to allow for an expansion to only "some 70 members.

Proposed alternatives

San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, and even the Black Hills of South Dakota were all proposed as sites for the United Nations Headquarters before Manhattan was finally decided upon. It was later revealed that France, the UK and the Netherlands voted against situating the headquarters in the United States.

In 1945-6 London hosted the first meeting of the General Assembly in Methodist Central Hall, and the Security Council in Church House. The third and sixth General Assembly sessions, in 1948 and 1951, met in the Trocadéro in Paris.

Prior to the construction of the current complex, the UN was headquartered at a temporary location in Lake Success, New York, an eastern suburb of New York City on Long Island. The Security Council has also held sessions on what was then the Bronx campus of Hunter College (now the site of Lehman College).

Prior to the choice of the site in New York City, Navy Island near Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada was proposed as an alternative headquarters for the United Nations. An international committee pitched the site as the "World Peace Capital" over 1945 and 1946. The island was considered to be an ideal location as it lay on the boundary of two bordering countries of a peaceful status. It was proposed that Navy Island would be ceded to the United Nations as long as the headquarters remained, and to revert to the Canadian government should the UN move. The proposal was ultimately turned down in favor of the current site in New York City.

Since the Headquarters buildings are in need of repair, it has been suggested that a new temporary site be created at the old Lake Success location. Brooklyn has also been suggested as a temporary site. Another alternative for a temporary headquarters or a new permanent facility is the World Trade Center site.

The Canadian government, along with provincial and municipal authorities, have proposed Montreal as a site to move the headquarters; a former docklands site has been earmarked and preliminary drawings made However, the UN turned down the request and renovations are slated to begin in the spring of 2008.

International character

The site of the United Nations Headquarters has extraterritoriality status, typical of embassies. This affects some law enforcement where UN rules override the laws of New York City, but does not give immunity to crimes that take place there. In addition, the United Nations Headquarters remains under the jurisdiction and laws of the United States, although a few members of the UN staff have diplomatic immunity and so cannot be prosecuted by local courts unless the diplomatic immunity is waived by the Secretary-General. In 2005, Secretary-General Kofi Annan waived the immunity of Benon Sevan, Aleksandr Yakovlev, and Vladimir Kuznetsov in relation to the Oil-for-Food Programme. All have been charged in the U.S. Federal Court of New York, except for Kofi Annan's own son, also implicated in the scandal. Benon Sevan later fled the U.S. to Cyprus, while Aleksandr Yakovlev and Vladimir Kuznetsov decided to stand trial.

The currency in use at the United Nations headquarters' businesses is the U.S. dollar. English and French are the working languages of the United Nations, i.e., most of the daily communication within secretariat and most of the signs in the UN headquarters building are in French and English.

The complex has a street address of 760 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017, USA. For security reasons, all mail sent to this address is sterilized, so items that may be degraded should be sent by courier. The United Nations Postal Administration issues stamps, which must be used on stamped mail sent from the building. Journalists, when reporting from the complex, will not use "New York" as the identification of their location in recognition of the extraterritoriality status.


The complex includes a number of major buildings. While the Secretariat Tower is most predominantly featured in depictions of the headquarters, it also includes the domed General Assembly Hall, the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, as well as the Conference and Visitors Center, which is situated between the General Assembly and Secretariat buildings, and can be seen only from FDR Drive or the East River. Just inside the perimeter fence of the complex stands a line of flagpoles where the flags of all 192 UN member states, plus the U.N. flag, are flown in English alphabetical order.

Art at the United Nations

The complex is also notable for its gardens and outdoor sculptures. Iconic sculptures include the "Knotted Gun," a gift from the Luxembourg government and "Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares," a gift from the then-Soviet Union. The latter sculpture is the only appearance of the "swords into plowshares" quotation, from Isaiah 2:4, within the complex. Contrary to popular belief, the quotation is not carved on any UN building. Rather, it is carved on the "Isaiah Wall" of Ralph Bunche Park across the street. A piece of the Berlin Wall also stands in the U.N. garden.

Other prominent artworks on the grounds include a Marc Chagall stained glass window memorializing the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Japanese Peace Bell which is rung on the vernal equinox and the opening of each General Assembly session, a Chinese ivory carving made in 1974 (before the ivory trade was largely banned in 1989), and a Venetian mosaic depicting Norman Rockwell's painting The Golden Rule.

Other buildings

While outside of the complex, the headquarters also includes two large office buildings that serve as offices for the specialized agencies of the organization, such as UNDP. These buildings, known as DC-1 and DC-2 are located at 1 and 2 UN Plaza respectively. There is also an identification office at the corner of 46th Street, inside a former bank branch, where pre-accredited diplomats, reporters, and others receive their grounds pass. UNICEF House (3 UN Plaza) and the UNITAR Building (807 UN Plaza) are also part of headquarters. However, the Church Center of the United Nations (777 UN Plaza) is a private building owned by the Methodist Church as an interfaith space housing the offices of several non-governmental organizations.

Renovation plans

In recent years, however, the headquarters buildings have come to need extensive renovation, including the need to install sprinklers, fix leaks, and remove asbestos. A renovation plan was announced in 2000 involving the building of a temporary headquarters on what is now a playground (Robert Moses Park) across the street from the current facility. Once renovations were finished, the temporary building would be used to ease overcrowding at the DC-1 and DC-2 However, due to the refusal of the federal and New York state governments to fund the project, little has been accomplished as of 2006. On July 28, 2007 it was announced the complex will undergo a $1 billion renovation starting in the fall. Swedish firm Skanska AB won a bid to overhaul the buildings which will include the Conference, General Assembly and Secretariat buildings. The renovations, which will be the first since the complex opened in 1950 are expected to take about 7 years to complete. When completed the complex is also expected to be more energy efficient. Officials hope the renovated buildings will achieve a LEED Silver rating, although they concede that the delay in construction will result in a projected 7.5% inflation rate in the cost of materials and labor over the course of the project.

Depictions in popular culture

Public gatherings

Protests, demonstrations, and other gatherings directly on First Avenue are rare. Some gatherings have taken place in Ralph Bunche Park, but it is too small to accommodate large demonstrations. The closest location where the New York City Police Department usually allows demonstrators is Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza at 47th Street and First Avenue, one block away from the visitors' entrance, four blocks away from the entrance used by top-level diplomats, and five blocks away from the general staff entrance.

Excluding gatherings solely for diplomats and academics, there are a few organizations which regularly hold events at the UN. The United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), a non-governmental organization, holds an annual "member's day" event in one of the conference rooms. Model United Nations conferences sponsored by UNA-USA, the National Collegiate Conference Association (NCCA/NMUN), and the International Model UN Association (IMUNA/NHSMUN) hold part of their sessions in the General Assembly chamber. The Whitehead School of Diplomacy hosts its UN summer study program at the headquarters as well.

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